Here's How Music Affects Work and Workers
6 all-important study findings, plus 4 tips for your playlist
Just Put Your Lips Together and Blow?
Upon arrival at an unfamiliar cottage deep in the forest, the exiled princess in the 1937 Disney classic, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, orchestrates a deep housecleaning; her adorable and industrious posse of woodland critters teaming up to help.
She urges them on, singing “Whistle While You Work,” a song forevermore lodged in our brains like some collective earworm.
The lyrics extol the wonders of whistling while working. They promise it…
Speeds you up and/or synchronizes the team: “a song to help you set the pace”;
Makes time fly: “It won’t take long when there’s a song”;
Turns your frown upside-down: “When hearts are high the time will fly, so whistle while you work.”
This last point sneaks up on you with ye ol’ transitive property argument:
Music makes time fly; time flies when you’re happy. Therefore, music makes you happy.
The full lyrics, sung in many performances, adds a fake-it-until-you-make-it mindset to suggest whistling makes you happier even when you’re swamped:
“When there’s too much to do/ Don’t let it bother you/ Forget your troubles/ Try to be just like a cheerful chick-a-dee/ And whistle while you work.”
(Unfortunately, if I reproduce the Disney lyrics here, lawyers wearing suits and mouseketeer hats will storm my office and take me away in an unmarked van. This link to the YouTube video seems safe, and the scene is a hoot to watch.)
This all begs the question: What are the advantages (or disadvantages) of music at work?
On-the-Job Music Making
Before the industrial revolution, weavers, farm workers, miners, tailors, and domestic workers were known to sing while working. “Such songs could set the pace and rhythm of the work,” writes sociologist Marek Korczynski“The labourer would scythe to the rhythm of the song being sung. And the songs being sung would be altered according to different demands.”
Sailors had one kind of sea shanty for hoisting anchor (“heaving”), for example, and another for hauling rope and setting sales. Heave, haul, heave, haul. (And, by the way… Heigh Ho!)
The soundscape of industry eventually muffled most workers’ impulses to join in song, though musical traditions persisted in a few factories, as well as glee clubs and onsite performances emblematic of welfare capitalism (in which workers were showered with perks, often as a means to ward off union organizing).
Listening to music while you work, rather than singing or whistling, emerged as (and remains) the hotter topic. While there’s gobs of research about background music and productivity, the belief that music puts a charge into productivity was exemplified by the British government’s Music While You Work program, switched on in factories in 1940 to speed up munitions manufacturing during World War II.
The BBC piped upbeat music into participating factories twice a day. Output increased by 12.5-15% immediately following the sessions, managers reported, claiming it reduced fatigue, relieved tedium, increased happiness, improved health, relieved nervous strain, and decreased absenteeism.
The BBC asserted that background music in offices, however, was a non-starter:
“The normal routine of an office cannot be conducted successfully against a background of music.”
With more people working in office settings — and, today, often alone in home offices — the calculus of office music has shifted, not only because of the physical environment, but also the proliferation of personal music. You’re more likely to use headphones or Airpods (or some other device), rather than find yourself subjected to your employer’s or co-worker’s hit parade.
Spoiler alert: One of the best analyses, led by psychologist Domenico Sanseverino and his team at University of Turin, concludes…
“Music has different functions at work and its effect should be considered to be context-dependent, i.e., music can serve multiple functions in different situations, such as promoting concentration or during a break. Moreover, music use is also influenced by personality.”
After wading knee-deep into journal articles (while listening to the psilocybin therapy playlist curated by psychologist Bill Richards), I have more questions than answers about music’s effect on work, especially the increasingly common kind of work requiring intense thinking (let’s call it brainwork). Research draws differing conclusions largely because, as the spoiler suggested, everything depends on the setting, the tasks, the music, and the listener.
Music and Work, According to Science
Here are six of the most persuasive findings:
Instrumental music can be helpful for brainwork and creativity, but lyrics are likely to be distracting.
Background music can impede performance when a worker strongly dislikes or likes it.
“Relaxing” music reduces productivity of industrial work.
Music can boost worker happiness, which can lead to improved performance.(Further research is needed to determine whether it makes them happy as a chickadee.)
The option to listen to music makes work more enjoyable and increases job satisfaction.
Listening to music can block unwanted, distracting noise.
Sanserevino and his University of Turin team conclude:
“Music-listening preferences could be another environmental characteristic of some workplaces that enhances employee autonomy, which, according to self-determination theory, could be a motivational boost and thus improve both well-being (i.e., job satisfaction) and job performance.”
“Management should work with employees to implement personalized interventions.”
The Music That Works Best for You
For those who can choose to listen to music but can’t decide how to construct their on-the-job playlist, Sam Kemmis — after reviewing the research for a Zapier blog post — offers 4 spot-on tips for your decision-making process.
Try upbeat or complex music for tedious work.
Listen to slower, simple, instrumental music for creative work.
Consider nature sounds if your tunes distract you.
Listen to music you like to feel happier and more satisfied.
Cautionary Tales… and Duck Tales
Acknowledging that listening to music isn’t feasible in many work settings (like call centers) Sanserevino challenges employers who could allow it but refuse to:
“It may be that there are some obstacles or resistance from supervisors that cement the view that listening to music at work is counterproductive. However, if further in-depth studies tailored to the work context confirm some of the findings, listening to music could be considered a ‘small’ (but smart) support in building a personalized and enjoyable work situation for people at work.”
Speaking of cautionary tales, potential “obstacles or resistance from supervisors” were eventually acknowledged by Disney. After decades of regaling us with “Whistle While You Work,” the first episode of Disney’s DuckTales revealed a less rosy view of working life… when Scrooge McDuck warns an employee:
“There’ll be no whistling while you work!”
Korczynski, M., Pickering, M., & Robertson, E. (2013). Rhythms of labour: Music at work in Britain. Cambridge University Press
Korczynski, M. (2003). Music at work: Towards a historical overview. Folk Music Journal, 314-334.)
Korczynski, M. (2007). Music and meaning on the factory floor. Work and Occupations, 34(3), 253-289.
Sanseverino, D., Caputo, A., Cortese, C. G., & Ghislieri, C. (2023). Don’t Stop the Music. Please: The Relationship between Music Use at Work, Satisfaction, and Performance. Behav. Sci, 13, 15.
Shih, Y. N., Huang, R. H., & Chiang, H. Y. (2012). Background music: Effects on attention performance. Work, 42(4), 573-578.
Haake, A. B. (2011). Individual music listening in workplace settings: An exploratory survey of offices in the UK. Musicae Scientiae, 15(1), 107-129.
Huang, R. H., & Shih, Y. N. (2011). Effects of background music on concentration of workers. Work, 38(4), 383-387.
Padmasiri, M. D., & Dhammika, K. A. S. (2014). The effect of music listening on work performance: a case study of Sri Lanka. Int. J. Sci. Technol. Res, 3(6).
Lesiuk, T. (2005). The effect of music listening on work performance. Psychology of music, 33(2), 173-191.
Thank you for sharing this well researched view on music in the workplace. The world has moved on since we last looked at this and it's great to understand what the latest research says. As we'd expect given the complexity of humans and the workplace, it's an actuarial "it depends" type answer, but at least we know now to some extent what is depends on!